A host of studies have shown that feedback is one of the most important elements of learning (e.g., Hattie, 2009; Wiggins, 2012). These studies also show that students are generally starved for good feedback. Their instructors focus on grades instead, having learned to mentally subtract points for errors as they go through students’ work and justify those deductions with brief comments such as “vague” and “grammar.” But these comments are not helpful to students. They lack detail about the problem and the solution.
When approached about how to give good feedback, instructors often worry that giving comprehensive feedback will be too time-consuming. But there is a solution: enlist students to help with the feedback. The Internet makes it easy to elicit feedback from others. David Wiley was among the first teachers to seize the opportunity for peer feedback by having students post their written work to a blog before submitting it to him (Wiley, 2009). Other students, and even people outside of the class, gave feedback on the work, fixing problems before it got to him and making his job easier. Plus, revising work is important to learning. Simply telling a student that they made a grammar error on a paper will not help them unless they fix it. Ironically, most faculty revise their work numerous times before sending it for publication, yet few require similar revision cycles for students. Pre-submission feedback and revision will thus improve writing and learning.
Should an instructor wish to keep feedback within the class, they can use their institution’s learning management system if it supports peer sharing. If it doesn’t, free blogging platforms such as Blogger allow students to easily post text and multimedia work and come with commenting features built in. Google Docs also has an excellent commentary feature. The instructor can set up a Google Group within which the class shares documents. While Google Drive has a video-hosting function, there is no built-in commenting feature, so YouTube may be better for multimedia work as videos can be made private and shared to specific email addresses or unlisted but with the URL shared.
A legitimate concern among instructors is that students will give poor-quality feedback. Some worry that students will lead one another astray and make their work worse, but this is unfounded. Students will point out problems with writing, clarity, or thinking. If a peer finds a passage unclear, then it is unclear.
Nevertheless, it is helpful to provide students with some basic guidance to ensure that their feedback is as helpful as possible. The biggest problem with peer feedback is that college students tend to be averse to criticizing one another and water down their feedback or simply give praise. To combat this tendency faculty need to explain that the goal of feedback is improvement and that both positive and negative feedback are necessary for improvement. If I pay a golf coach to improve my swing, I want honest feedback, not blind praise. In fact, praise can undermine performance (Dweck, 2007). Telling me that I’ve done a good job does not help me improve.
Positive feedback provides information on what was done well (Wiggins, 2012). A baseball coach might tell a player, “Your stance is good because your legs are wide and parallel to the plate. This will ensure that you get enough power from your lower body to hit far and straight.” Note how the feedback addresses how well the player’s actions meet a standard of effective play, not a general “good job.” It is very specific: it states exactly what was done well and why it was done well. You want to give positive feedback because if you talk only about what the person did wrong, they might stop doing what they are doing well. Similarly, one student might tell another, “It is easy to understand your argument because you start each section by saying what you will cover in it.” That is quality positive feedback.
Negative feedback provides information on what was not done well. People tend to avoid it because they confuse it with unhelpful, ad hominem criticism, such as “this is dumb.” But that is not negative feedback. An example of negative feedback is a baseball coach’s saying to a player, “You are holding your elbow next to your body, which forces you to chop at the ball and lose all your power. You need to lift your inside elbow up so that your upper arm is parallel to the ground, like this . . .”
Note here how the feedback begins with a clear statement of what was done wrong and why it was wrong and then indicates how to fix the problem. An academic example might be as follows: “North Korea was not a strong choice of a country to examine for a business partnership, because there are too many trade restrictions on it. You should choose a country that is a more established trading partner, such as South Korea or Taiwan. That will make it much easier to create a development plan.” The feedback starts by noting the problem and why it is a problem and then provides a solution.
Importantly, students are not demotivated by negative feedback given in this style, because it includes a guide to improvement. People do not mind hearing what they are doing wrong if it includes a path to improvement. Unfortunately, such guidance is missing from most faculty feedback, and so a student’s only recourse is to lobby for a better grade. Faculty who want to avoid being badgered for better grades need only explain to students how to improve their work and allow them to resubmit it. Doing so puts the ball in the student’s court. Students must also be told that the goal is to improve one another’s work. Thus, they should provide both positive and negative feedback as well as suggestions for improvement.
Properly guided peer feedback will improve your students’ work and learning.
Dweck, C. (2007, October). The perils and promises of praise. Educational Leadership, 65(2), 34–39. Retrieved from http://www.ascd.org/publications/educational-leadership/oct07/vol65/num02/The-Perils-and-Promises-of-Praise.aspx
Hattie, J. (2009). Visible learning. New York, NY: Routledge.
Wiggins, G. (2012, September). Seven keys to effective feedback. Educational Leadership, 70(1), 10–16. Retrieved from http://www.ascd.org/publications/educational-leadership/sept12/vol70/num01/Seven-Keys-to-Effective-Feedback.aspx
Wiley, D. (2009, July 15). Open teaching multiplies the benefit but not the effort [Blog post]. Retrieved from https://www.chronicle.com/blogs/wiredcampus/david-wiley-open-teaching-multiplies-the-benefit-but-not-the-effort/7271